It’s Ron Klain’s turn in the barrel

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It’s Ron Klain’s turn in the barrel
© Win McNamee/Getty Images White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain attends an event.

As Joe Biden limps into his second year in office, a common criticism has emerged among fellow party members: his top advisers are too insular, rigid, and self-assured.

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At the center of it all is Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain.

For months, moderate Democrats in Congress have complained that Klain is overly deferential to their liberal colleagues, to the point where some members and Hill staff privately said he needed to be replaced. With Biden’s domestic agenda stalling out, the Covid pandemic lingering and inflation rising, second guessing of his leadership is now coming from a wider swath of the party and even some corners of the administration.

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“The president was elected because we all thought he was going to be good at governing,” said a House Democratic lawmaker, who spoke candidly about Klain on condition of anonymity. “He was going to govern from the center, he was going to work with Republicans. And to have a chief of staff that apparently has decided that he’s going to be Bernie Sanders, I think that’s confusing. It’s just not helpful.”

At the peak of the Democratic infighting this fall over how to pass Biden’s domestic agenda, the same Democratic lawmaker fumed that “Ron Klain should be fired.”

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During his news conference Wednesday, Biden said he wanted to diversify the advice he’s receiving, including by leaning more on outside advisers. But he scoffed at the idea that he shared Sanders’ socialist ideology and said he remains confident with his team, including Klain, who worked for Biden during his Senate years and when he was vice president. White House officials note that despite the intraparty drama, Biden has notched major victories—from Covid-relief to the bipartisan infrastructure bill. They argue that he is positioned for more and that Klain is instrumental to that goal.

“You got to work at it every day. And that’s what Ron’s good at,” said Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff during the Clinton administration who has spoken multiple times with Klain since he took on the job. “He’s steady. He’s a real strong leader. He knows what the president thinks and why he thinks it and what he wants to get done.”

Bowles paid him perhaps the highest compliment he could: “I’m not going back to Washington under any circumstance,” he added. “But Ron is somebody I could work for in a heartbeat.”

While Klain retains his defenders and the support of the president, some in his party said they don’t believe he’s personally shouldered enough of the blame for the administration’s current troubles. For example, Klain, who is a habitual user of Twitter and a regular presence on TV, has repeatedly told aides, elected leaders and close outside allies that the Biden administration needs to do a better job of touting its accomplishments. But the directive has struck some as detached given that responsibility for communication failures is, to a large degree, his own. Notably, in the past few days, Klain has been on a media blitz.

But inside the administration, morale is sinking. Managerial directives that were once accepted now can come across like nails on a chalkboard. Administration officials say Klain can be both a demanding boss—traits not uncommon for a chief of staff, but harder to stomach during a time of remote work—and sometimes not visible at all.

“He is like this non-accessible…figure to so many people in the White House,” one mid-level administration official said. “He just keeps a very, very tight inner circle.”

A White House official responded to the characterizations of Klain’s management approach by saying he’s known for taking different people’s views to Biden on major decisions. He’s also been attentive to staff and at important junctures has held all-staff calls, even sending out 100-day pins. “He’s someone who makes everyone feel like they are heard and wants to have all points of view heard by the president,” the official said.

For those who served in the chief of staff post before, the predicament rings all too familiar. The job can be unforgiving. To take it means to accept that, eventually, it will be your turn in the barrel.

“It falls on him because he has the title,” said Bill Daley, former chief of staff to Barack Obama. “It goes with the territory. When it’s good the credit goes with the president. And when it’s bad, the blame goes to you.”

Or, as Bowels put it: “You’re the spear catcher. And you’ve got to have tough skin to do that.”

*****

Klain was a logical pick for the chief’s role, arriving as a seasoned bureaucrat and skilled communicator owing to his years of government work and time as a cable news pundit. He also emerged from Biden’s inner circle as a kind of goldilocks for Democrats’ ideological standoffs. The left, which distrusted others in the running for the post, viewed Klain as a rare kindred spirit in Biden World’s highest ranks. The establishment regarded him as a card-carrying member.

In the first few months, Klain made it clear he embraced the view that Biden had a mandate to act boldly and only a small window in which to do so. He welcomed comparisons to the likes of FDR and LBJ. And Biden acted accordingly, holding all 50 Senate Democrats together to pass the huge Covid-relief package that’s credited with helping turn around the U.S. economy, and standing up a robust vaccination campaign.

As Covid cases decreased and vaccination levels rose in the spring, the president’s team began touting its successes. Administration officials say Klain, alongside White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, was the chief proponent of holding a big July 4 event outside the White House to declare the nation’s independence from the virus. Some on the administration’s Covid policy team thought it was a bad idea. Sure enough, the Delta variant ripped across the country just weeks later, underscoring the long battle still facing the country and the Biden administration’s failure to anticipate the latest wave of the virus.

Shortly thereafter, the administration’s main legislative agenda item—the Build Back Better initiative—was facing a crossroads on the Hill, with questions over whether to break it into two components (a social spending package and an infrastructure one) or keep it whole. Democrats on the Hill contend the White House’s messaging was mixed and that it too often appeared Biden’s staff was holding him back from making hard demands of lawmakers.

“The president, he does believe in listening to everybody. He is a person that understands people. He takes the time to listen and he’s human — that is a strength and that is a weakness,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich). “He needs to get tougher this year in saying [to lawmakers]: ‘I need you to do this, this has to get done and just laying it out.’”

To that end, Dingell added that as the White House pursues the rest of its legislative agenda, “the staff needs to be united in the advice that they’re giving him.”

Though the White House says Klain engages with all factions of the Democratic caucus in both chambers, he has worked primarily with progressive lawmakers, who wanted to tether the two pieces of Biden’s economic agenda together. At the same time, Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, emerged as the go-to person for House Democratic leadership as well as moderates who pushed the idea that Biden needed a win — particularly a bipartisan one — as quickly as he could get it and that infrastructure was the cleanest route there.

The dispute over approach led to intra-party squabbles and questions about just what the White House wanted. Biden twice went to the Hill in the fall and made no direct demands, infuriating centrist Democrats and House Democratic leadership. Some Democrats blamed Klain for not whipping progressives to back an infrastructure-only bill after Biden’s initial visit to the House Democratic caucus in the fall. By refusing to do so, one member of Congress argued, Klain had effectively ceded negotiation leverage to the head of the congressional progressive caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

Ahead of the second visit, Klain did apply pressure even as Jayapal and others urged him not to do so. The package ended up being split apart and infrastructure passed. But the process left a sour taste in the mouth of some Democratic lawmakers.

Jayapal, in an interview, maintained that progressives were simply boosting Biden’s agenda, wanting to see it passed in its entirety. She also questioned why some of her colleagues were accusing Klain of mismanagement of Biden’s legislative agenda when moderate lawmakers got their preferred outcome.

“Ron has been engaged with every part of the Democratic caucus,” Jayapal said. “We don’t always agree, but I think he’s been a very fair negotiator and a very fair representative of the president.”

Administration officials, likewise, said that blame for the failure to pass the social spending portion of the BBB initiative doesn’t rest on one person’s shoulders. “It’s an amalgamation of lots of things,” is how one former senior administration official put it. They also downplayed the notion that there is tension at the top of the ranks. “They’re good cop, bad cop,” a current administration official said of the Ricchetti-Klain dynamic.

But there are critics too. Officials inside the administration said Klain allowed staff to get too bogged down in messy process standoffs. He is, aides noted, reactive to tough news, which he comes across on his active Twitter feed. That dynamic is felt across the administration, with one official conceding that their higher-ups complain about “every pea under the mattress.”

Like other chiefs before him, Klain also has served as a bottleneck for White House decision making. Aides said they believe it’s necessary in order to prioritize initiatives and keep daily schedules from going entirely off the rails. But it has grated on allies who say it’s become difficult to get decisions made without first securing Klain’s sign-off.

The White House failed for months to prioritize the search for a permanent Food and Drug Administration commissioner, a key role in the government’s response to Covid — in large part because Klain and his inner circle were occupied with more immediate concerns, two people familiar with the process said. The White House official, in response, said the search was a priority and that the delay was due to differing views among Hill Democrats about who should be chosen. Either way, the FDA hunt floundered. And while the U.S. became the first country to approve a vaccine for those between the ages of five and 11, the agency’s leadership has been in limbo for a good chunk of the pandemic.

Outside the administration, the same criticism has been leveled at the president’s approach to voting rights, which allies said was not sufficiently prioritized as GOP-authored laws took hold in several states across the country.

“I don’t know if it’s his staff or if it’s him,” Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview. “But I think that voting rights should have gone before anything else. There’s nothing more basic than that. Who made the call? I have no idea but I said from the beginning to the president and others, voting rights should have been the first thing they came out the door with.”

The White House ultimately did make a major pivot to voting rights at the beginning of the year. But the push proved for naught. On Wednesday evening, shortly after Biden’s presser, the Democratic Party’s two main pieces of legislation were filibustered in the Senate. Leadership then fell two votes short of changing the rules to pass those bills by a party line vote.

*****

Despite all the hiccups in the last six months, few expect Biden to make changes among his staff, and a person familiar with the situation said there is no timeline for Klain himself to leave. It’s not just that he pledged at his marathon Wednesday press conference to stick by them, but that he is loath to fire people and is steadfastly loyal to those who have long worked with him. Klain remains among the few individuals who enjoy that type of trust.

“I don’t think Ron is going anywhere because your only options are between those six [top aides],” said the current administration official. “They all trust each other, they might fight like brothers. There’s few people in this world that can yell back at the president and rein him in when he needs to be and Ron is just one of them.”

For some Democrats, that may prove problematic as they yearn for meaningful changes before the midterms. But for other operatives in the progressive ecosystem, the dictum remains: In Klain We Trust; not necessarily because his year as chief has been an unmitigated success, but because they’ve grown comfortable with him as an ally and fear the alternatives.

“Even if you thought Ron had some missteps here, what would you want, Ricchetti in that job? Absolutely not,” said a top progressive operative who works closely with the administration. “If you want to avoid a triangulation situation, a Bill Clinton second term strategy, Ron is the best ally you’ve got to not get a course correction like that.”

Adam Cancryn, Max Tani and Alex Thompson contributed to this report.

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